Since his megahit, “Phantom of the Opera,” it’s become fashionable to deride composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. I don’t much care for “Phantom” (one tune spun out over three hours), but I champion the less-successful “Sunset Boulevard,” receiving its area premiere by Minneapolis Musical Theatre.
Webber and librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton create a straightforward adaptation of Billy Wilder’s classic film about an over-the-hill movie star, Norma Desmond, and her affair with younger, out of work screenwriter, Joe Gillis.
This is the kind of over-the-top emotional story that is ripe for a musical version. The score is pretty much through-composed, Broadway in its tunes and operatic in its effective use of leitmotifs.
This production is an example of why MMT can be such a frustrating company. Under artistic director Steven Meerdink, they take exciting risks, but too often their reach exceeds their grasp.
The intimacy of the New Century Theatre required Meerdink to rethink the elaborate set. He creates a new framing device: It all happens in the sanitarium to which Norma is sent. This does little damage to the story, but the austere backdrop, institutional furniture and tight-budget costumes look done up on the cheap and miss the Hollywood glamour so necessary to the story.
Sarah Gibson is a strong actor and has delivered many satisfying performances. But Norma Desmond is beyond her. She is far too young, making her less than convincing as a woman terrified of aging.
A live video feed shows her in close-up, which only emphasizes the artificiality of her reading. She seems to be playing a caricature of a caricature, more Carol Burnett than Gloria Swanson.
As Joe Gillis, Tim Kuehl has the courage to emphasize the heel, cynical and disillusioned. That makes his transformation into a selfless man moving, if ultimately tragic.
His strong voice captures that hardness, as well as the love he comes to feel for Aly Westberg’s Betty Schaeffer, a budding writer. They become the show’s emotional heart.
Christian Unser turns Max von Mayerling into a heartbreaking grotesque.
Meerdink captures much of Wilder’s black comedy, but is most successful at painting the background of workaday Hollywood. He and music director Lori Maxwell create a tight ensemble.
William Randall Beard writes about music and theater.